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27 October 2006
Student Council

The grownups won’t let us vote on the big questions

In the classic 1999 movie Election, one of the many ironies (and one passed over quickly, so you might miss it) is that the actual vote winner of the high school election isn’t the Reese Witherspoon character but Tammy, who has been disqualified (and expelled), but whose platform was that the election was meaningless anyway and, if she won, she would refuse to participate in something so trivial. This position, one of total apathy toward an empty exercise in “government,” actually carries the day.

It’s easy to dismiss with cynicism such a widespread nondesire to participate, as we scornfully note that in every real American election large numbers (often more than half) of those eligible to vote do not turn out.

But the genius of the movie is the way its teenagers (much like the kids in Lord of the Flies) function as an allegorical microcosm of adult society. The kids who vote for Tammy’s position—student government is meaningless; let’s quit participating—have a point. The student government will have a say about stuff like what colors and song would fit the prom theme. It will not have a say about things like whether students get computers in the classroom or whether the Army should be allowed to recruit on campus.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher wanted us to read a book called The Story of Vietnam. A lot of the kids wanted to read The Lord of the Rings instead, as many of us had had The Hobbit the year before. The teacher didn’t want to do Tolkien (too long, too male); her Vietnam choice was personal, as her husband was a Marine in country, in combat. So she put it up to a vote. Lord of the Rings won, so she put it up for a second vote, with an even more lopsided result in favor of Tolkien. Finally she informed us we would keep voting till her choice won.

I only remember a few things about The Story of Vietnam. Two of them are: (1) it was the U.S. that blocked previously scheduled elections, knowing that Ho Chi Minh would have won and (2) the U.S. had the incompetent Diem assassinated and installed the dictatorial government which we were then unsuccessfully defending. The parallel was obvious: You’re only allowed democracy if you vote the way somebody bigger than you likes it and if you confine your votes to subjects that don’t really matter, a concept that was confirmed later on when I served on a student council.

Our sad American democracy today is like a student council. Issues that could make our lives better are off the table. The current gang of incompetents in the GOP certainly needs to be kicked down the Capitol steps. But there’s a long list of things that changing parties won’t affect:

Maybe it’s no surprise all those millions stay home, with so many things they care about not available for discussion, a situation aggravated by the unjustly praised two-party system.

Voting is important, I guess. It matters more than usual this time around. But (looking back to the 1960s and early ’70s) we can see that real political change in this country happens in two ways: assassinations on the part of the Right, and street action on the part of the Left. The shootings of RFK and Wallace helped throw the 1968 election to Nixon while the elimination of MLK and Malcolm X helped stifle progress in civil rights, and it is often forgotten that Watergate only consummated Nixon’s downfall in the aftermath of years of huge demonstrations including campuses in revolt and cities on fire.

So go pull the lever, fill in the ovals, or touch the Diebold screen on Tuesday, 7 November. But if you want real change, voting is the very least you need to do. Organize, write letters, educate your friends, join a union, march on your state capitol. Don’t let our vapid, tabloidesque mass media confine the issues to things that don’t matter to you. High schoolers know that student government is a farce. We, the people of the United States, deserve better.

Turn over another new leaf:
9 August 2006
Joe Bye-Bye-A

A few lines on Lieberman’s defeat, with apologies to Hank

28 July 2006
SUVs for the Homeless

How to recycle your obsolete behemoth

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